My brother, Barry, and I have been making maple syrup for the past six years in a small sugar shack in the woods of upstate New York. Last year, our nephew, Tim, joined in on the fun. It’s a smalltime operation… very small. Our most productive year netted us four gallons of the sweet stuff.
Up where the winters are long and the snow cover lingers, it’s nice to have a project that heralds the coming of spring. The paths are muddy and the daffodil greens have yet to break the surface, but the robins have appeared and the sound of northbound Canada geese overhead brings hope. And as the steam rises, the smell of syrup is oh, so sweet.
When people find out that you make maple syrup, there is usually genuine interest in the what, why, and how of the process. They’re mostly curious as to how much sap you start out with and how long it takes (yes, it takes a while). The good news is, if you’ve got access to some maple trees and a place outside to boil, anybody can do this.
Maple Syrup in 31 Easy Steps…
1. When is maple syrup made?
The syrup season is typically a 4-6 week period during late winter and early spring. The sap doesn’t begin to flow until there are several consecutive days above freezing. When the daytime highs are near 40 degrees and overnight lows are around 20, the conditions are perfect. In upstate New York, that’s usually around the last week of February until the first week of April. The season ends when either the overnight temperatures no longer consistently dip below freezing or the trees start to “bud out” which gives the syrup a bitter taste.
2. What types of trees make the best syrup?
Tree selection leaves me stumped sometimes. Barry is more of a tree whisperer when it comes to which ones are the best to tap. There are several types of maples, but sugar maples provide the most sap with the highest sugar content. Trees out in the open with full branches have more sap running through them. Basically, those big old craggy-barked maples are your best bet. If possible, choose trees that are near the road or a driveway to save yourself time and effort when it comes time to collect. And for the health of the trees, make sure they are at least 10 inches in diameter.
3. Let’s tap!
The technical term is spiles, but they are more commonly known as taps or spouts. They come in many different shapes and styles including metal and plastic, but they all serve the same purpose: to funnel the sap out of the tree. The best place on the tree to tap is either above a large root or below a large branch. Also, the side of the tree that faces the afternoon sun will usually yield more sap. Drill the appropriate size hole, lightly tap the spile so that it fits snugly, and if all goes well the sap will start dripping before you can reach for the pail!
4. Collecting with pails and plastic lines
The Rubenau boys are old school when it comes to collecting sap. Big time operations these days use plastic taps connected to long webs of plastic tubing which eventually make their way to a vacuum collection system hooked to large stainless steel tanks. We hang metal buckets. You could use old milk jugs if you like, too. As long as you’ve got a way to keep out the rain and any bits of bark and twigs that may fall, you’re good. A good running tap will yield up to five gallons of sap a day, so make sure to check and empty twice daily.
5. Where’s your sugar shack?
Location, location, location! The best spot for your sugar shack is, obviously, near the actual maple trees and close to a driveway. We do things the hard way! The trees we’re currently tapping are two miles away, and we have to carry the sap from the road in five-gallon buckets for about 300 yards into the woods to get to the cabin and shack. Not the smartest idea, but the cabin was there first, and it’s a beautiful spot in the midst of an old growth Christmas tree farm that my parents planted beginning in the early ’60s. The stillness there makes it more than worth the hike in.
6. Evaporating on the cheap
You don’t need much to get started in the syrup business. This is the rig we used our first year, some old cinderblocks and a steam table tray. It was all a bit smoky and an occasional stray ash would make its way into the pan, so the end product had a definite “woodsy” taste to it. But, we managed to end up with about a quart of syrup and enough “we can do this!” spirit to look forward to bigger and better things the following year.
7. Evaporator, take two
One of the nice things about a hobby is having the luxury of a bit of trial and error as you’re learning the best ways to do things. It’s rewarding to tweak the process each season and ask “how could we do X better?” This is the evaporator I put together our second year, basically a larger, more formal version of the cobbed together rookie rig. Well, as the kids like to say today, it was an epic fail! The elevated concrete base crumbled when things got too hot, and smoke started making its way up through the cinderblocks. It was time to call it a season and get serious in year three.
8. A legit firebox
Now we’re getting serious! By our third year, we were committed enough to the process to actually buy a firebox and evaporator pans like the pros. All of the metal pieces came in a box ready to be bolted together and lined with firebrick. The top is completely open so there’s maximum heat transfer from the flames to the underside of the pan.
9. “The shack”
Sugar shacks come in many shapes and sizes. Our “production facility” has a small, enclosed shed for supplies with an open area for boiling with just enough shelter to protect the operation from the rain. In the offseason, the evaporator and tank are stored inside the shed. The garden hose is there because I had the bright idea that year that we could use it to pour the sap through from the road to the tank. That didn’t exactly pan out.
10. Storing your sap
While you’re collecting sap, you’ll need a place to store it until it’s time to boil. We use a 70-gallon galvanized tank we picked up from a farm supply store. We typically won’t start a boiling session until we’ve got at least 50 gallons collected. Sap can be safely stored in a cool place out of the sun for a few days, but it will eventually spoil in the same way milk does, even if refrigerated for an extended period of time. Once boiled down, because of its higher sugar content the syrup has a much longer shelf life.
11. Measuring your progress
Once things getting rolling and the sap level is dropping in the tank, it’s nice to know how far along you are without having to climb a ladder to lift the lid to check. I tried a couple of different dipstick methods before settling on this cutout PVC pipe with clear tubing up into the tank. A small, colored, plastic bead floating in the tube shows how many gallons are left.
12. Getting the sap from the tank to the pan
It’s not exactly a Rube Goldberg machine, but we do use some tubing to syphon off the sap into the boiling pan. The trick is to adjust the constant trickle to be the same rate that the steam is boiled off. I painted the tubing to give a little color to the place. Our nephew, Tim, asked, “why did you paint it purple? That’s a girl color.” Ok, then.
13. The woodpile
For a nice rolling boil you’ll need a nice raging fire. Fuels like propane have their advantages, particularly when it comes to controlling the amount of heat at the end of a boiling session. But nothing beats a good old fashioned wood fire, not to mention it’s cheaper if your shack is in the middle of the woods. Hardwoods like maple and ash are best since they don’t cause as much creosote buildup in the chimney and the undersides of the pans, plus hardwoods tend to burn longer. And there’s a certain “circle of life” vibe to burning seasoned maple wood to boil maple sap.
14. Inside the shed
Guys love hanging things on pegboards! Any excuse to put up some pegboard, and we’re all over it! If you’re wondering about the car jack hanging on the right, we use that to jack up the evaporator to wheel it in and out of storage.
15. The evaporator pans
We use two stainless steel pans to “cook” our sap. The main pan sits directly over the fire and is divided into three sections with holes between each section so that the sap/syrup can make its way in a zigzag pattern from the upper pan faucet toward the opposite corner. In small evaporators like this, it doesn’t serve much of a purpose, but larger, professional pans have many, many channels, and the consistency between where the sap enters and the other corner of the pan where the syrup is ready to draw off is more dramatic. The upper pan is used to preheat the sap so that it doesn’t enter the boiling liquid while it’s still cold. This preheating step helps with the overall taste of the end product.
16. Let’s get started!
Here’s what the sap looks like before everything gets cookin’. It’s completely clear and has the consistency of water. As you might imagine, it has a sugary taste to it, but you could down a glass of it just like you were drinking water. It’s only after it’s been boiling for some time that the sap slowly begins to thicken and take on a pale amber color.
17. It’s all about the steam
Making syrup is remarkably simple: just boil off most of the water content from the sap and bottle what’s left. There are no additives or preservatives to mix in. The amount of water vapor that evaporates per hour depends on the surface area of the pan. Our rig will steam off five gallons of water an hour, so that gives us a rough estimate at the beginning of a boiling session how long it will take. And, exactly how long does it take, you ask? Find out tomorrow…
18. The question everybody asks…
The first question on many people’s minds about syrup production is: “How much sap do you need?” The ratio is roughly 40 to 1. Meaning that if you started with the bucket on the left full of sap, you’d end up with the much smaller container on the right full of syrup. Earlier in the season the sugar content of the sap is typically higher, so the ratio could be something more favorable like 36 to 1, and later in the season it may be 43 to 1.
19. Determining when to stop boiling
Many, many hours after you start, at some point you’ll need to know when to stop boiling. When things first get underway, the boiling point of the sap is the same as water, 212 degrees Fahrenheit. It stays at 212 for quite a while, but toward the end, the temperature starts to rise as the sap/syrup begins to thicken. When the temperature is 219.1 degrees, it’s syrup! Anything under that and the syrup will be too watery and will spoil more quickly. If you boil past that point, the syrup may turn to sugar over time. You can also check using specific gravity, but that sounds way too much like high school chemistry, so we just use a digital candy thermometer.
20. Do you ever get bored?
21. The final boiling
Most of the boiling should be done outside or in a designated shelter that can deal with a large amount of water vapor. There have been stories of boiling sessions in home kitchens where the ceiling sheetrock became so soaked with moisture that it fell to the floor! But there’s nothing wrong with doing the last bit of boiling on a stove at home. It’s important to pay attention in the final minutes because the syrup will foam up quite quickly and boil over if you’re not careful. That’s another good sign that the syrup is just about ready.
22. Filtering the final product
It’s best to filter the sap/syrup at each stage of the process, but a good filtering of the final product right before it’s bottled is essential. Without filtering, particulate matter will cloud the syrup and settle to the bottom. It’s harmless, but most of your friends won’t be asking, “Do you have any more of that syrup with the sludge in it?” We use a thick wool-like (I think it’s wool) cone lined with a thinner liner similar to a coffee filter to ensure the syrup is crystal clear.
23. The many types of bottles
There aren’t many rules when it comes to which containers to use to bottle your end product. From canning jars to flasks, almost anything goes. If you’re looking to turn a profit, plastic bottles and jugs are less expensive, and glass bottles in the shape of maple leaves are very popular at gift and retail shops. This year we’re trying flasks and a new boutique line using higher-end swing top bottles.
24. Bottling and capping
Once the syrup is filtered and before the temperature dips below 180 degrees, fill your containers so that there’s a minimum amount of air at the top and cap them tightly. It’s best to lay them on their side for a bit so the underside of the cap is sterilized by the hot syrup. Once everything is cool, you should be able to see a slight indentation in the lid or cap, an indication that the seal is airtight.
Maple syrup comes in different grades depending on its color. Sampler kits used for comparison are sold commercially. In general, maple syrup tends to get darker as the season progresses. If your syrup is darker than the darkest sample, it would be better used as cooking syrup rather than something you’d pour directly on your waffles.
26. What’s in a name
A few years back, a bunch of us computer nerds at work were talking about the syrup process, and we got to speculating whether all maple syrup is organic or if the trees would have to be grown in a specific way. My friend Rob joked about free range maple trees. A good laugh led to this label and the now legendary Uncle B’s Free Range Maple Syrup. Think about it, do you really want your syrup from trees that were raised in pens and cages?
27. Storage and use
Bottled syrup will last for quite awhile if stored in a cool, dry location. It’s best to use it within 12 months, and once a bottle is open, make sure to keep it refrigerated. You may notice a trace amount of what looks like sand accumulate on the bottom of the bottle. It’s called niter and is a harmless, natural byproduct of the syrup making process. The final filtering prior to bottling will eliminate most of the niter, but some may still make its way into the final product.
28. Cleaning up
As you might imagine, this whole sticky process involves some cleaning up at the end. Since the sap we start out with is the consistency of water, the buckets and pails aren’t too bad as they just end up being a little tacky to the touch. Simple hot water with a bit of bleach added works great. Don’t use any type of dish soap on the buckets or holding tank as it’s very hard to get rid of the residual taste of the soap. The real messy part is the bottling in the kitchen. Each year we try to optimize that process a bit more, but ultimately syrup seems to drip everywhere. Oh well, it comes with the territory, I guess.
29. The off-season
When the trees begin to bud and the flowers of spring appear, the time for sugaring is done. The fleeting flurry of activity of the previous few weeks is tucked away with the buckets and taps, set aside to collect dust for the rest of the year. Throughout the summer and autumn we’ll find time to split some wood for the next round, freshen up the shack, and tinker with the design of the rig at a more leisurely, deliberate pace. All the while, the canopy of maple leaves rustles overhead.
30. Why we do it
If I think about it too much, in the end, the numbers really don’t add up. The cost of the equipment and supplies, the effort of the daily collection of sap, the endless hours of boiling. It would be easier to just buy a jug of the stuff at Wegmans and call it a day. But, I’d miss out on a little extra time with my brother, the hopeful sounds of northbound geese, and a brief respite from the noise of the modern world. But more than anything, it’s an opportunity to just slow down. Naturalist John Burroughs once wrote, “I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.” I like the sound of that. I like it a lot.
Now, crack open a bottle and enjoy. You’ve earned it!